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Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, ENVIRONMENT, AND RELATED AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2006--Continued -- (Senate - July 29, 2005)

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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I would like to take just a moment to comment on the Interior appropriations conference report now before the Senate.

First, let me congratulate Senator Burns, chairman of the Intenor Subcommittee and his ranking member, Senator Dorgan, for their work on finishing this important piece of legislation before we adjourn for the August recess. My home State of Idaho has great interest in the Interior appropriations bill every year. And timely completion of this legislation is welcome news to my constituents.

As odd as this may sound, though, I do not wish to speak about Interior matters in this bill. Rather, I want to say a few words about the $1.5 billion included in this legislation for fiscal year 2005 supplemental funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

I know all of my colleagues are aware of the notice I received a little over 1 month ago that VA funding for this fiscal year was severely strained. And that, as a result, this Congress was going to need to move fast to provide an infusion of resources to ensure our veterans continued to receive high-quality, timely health care from VA.

Working with Senators Hutchison, Cochran, Murray, Feinstein, Akaka, and others, the Senate voted unanimously to add $1.5 billion for VA health care to this Interior appropriations bill. We did so because we were confident this legislation would be completed in time to get this bill to the President's desk--and more importantly get the money to VA for veterans' health care--before the August recess. As is evident with the expected passage of this bill today, we have accomplished that goal.

Certainly this victory has not come without some hard work and negotiations. It was extremely difficult to get the administration to provide us with accurate budget numbers in any timely fashion. I spoke several times with VA Secretary Jim Nicholson and with OMB about the need to get the information to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs and the Appropriations Committee fast and to get it right with respect to fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2006 so that we would not be back here again in 6 months talking about shortfalls.

I am cautiously optimistic that VA and OMB have gotten it right this time. Working with Congress, they submitted a fiscal year 2005 and 2006 budget amendment that identified the need for an additional $2.952 billion. This bill provides a $1.5 billion down payment that goes towards meeting that identified need.

In addition, Senators Hutchison and Feinstein are working on VA's funding need for fiscal year 2006 in the military construction/VA appropriations bill that was recently sent to the Senate floor by the full Appropriations Committee. We will all have a chance to vote on that measure after the recess.

I also want to tell my colleagues that I was very unhappy with the way in which all of this information about VA's shortfalls came to my attention. As chairman of the Veterans Committee, I take very seriously my responsibility to provide oversight of the VA and its financial picture on behalf of the Senate. And I want each of you to know that I have received personal assurances from Secretary Nicholson that he will provide quarterly reports throughout the fiscal year on VA's financial picture so that Senators can be certain that VA is on track and on budget.

Working together with Members on both sides of the aisle, I believe we can conduct the proper oversight of VA's health care budget and make certain that adequate finances are provided for the health care needs of our Nation's veterans.

Again, Mr. President, I thank my colleagues for all of their support, especially Chairman Cochran and Ranking Member Byrd of the full Appropriations Committee. Their unwavering commitment in the face of VA's shortfalls made this substantial supplemental increase possible.

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